The year was 1980. I was sitting in a dimly lit hospital room. The pale yellow walls were streaked with cigarette smoke. A woman sat on the edge of the bed, her arms pressed against her middle, her eyes fixed on the floor.
She rocked back and forth, a rhythmic self-soothing motion that was somehow both sad and frustrating. A lit cigarette dangled from her dry lips.
I was in the room with a young and eager psychiatrist, newly minted and ready to help. His questions were asked in a gentle voice, in perfect American English. I was there to translate them into the Russian spoken by our elderly patient.
She was a recent immigrant to Boston from what was then the Soviet Union. She was one of a wave of Russian Jews who were coming to the US with the help of the aid organization HIAS. I was one of a handful of young interpreters who helped with their resettlement. Today I was interpreting an intake assessment for a severely depressed older woman and her psychiatrist. She had been admitted to the hospital the night before when her son found her unable to settle, to stop pacing or to be calmed.
The assessment didn’t take long, because the patient failed to answer most of the questions. Instead, she repeatedly mumbled about strangers in black jackets who she feared would break down the door. She stood up a few times to peer out the small window, scanning the street for the “black cars” that would come to take her away to an unknown prison.
After the interview, I sat with the psychiatrist, another doctor and a psychiatric nurse to review and clarify what had been recorded. As we finished, the young psychiatrist turned to his supervisor and said, “It certainly seems like paranoid delusions. She actually believes that strangers are going to come and take her away in the night.” The team was planning to treat her for psychosis.
“Wait,” I said. I didn’t usually say much in meetings like this, because I was only a 22 year old Soviet Studies major with no medical training. But this time it was different.
“She isn’t making this up,” I told the team. “In the 1930s, under Stalin, the secret police broke open her door in the middle of the night. She and her husband were taken away and put in prison. He was sent to Siberia and he never came back.”
I looked at the frowning faces in front of me. They didn’t know the history of the Soviet Union under the dictator Josef Stalin. In the middle of an American summer day, the idea of unmarked secret police taking people away without any evidence of a crime seemed improbable enough to make them doubt my story. This was the United States. There were laws protecting citizens from this kind of illicit action.
They couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible. But I knew it was. I had studied the history, but I had also spoken to the survivors. This frail woman, rocking and smoking and living in constant fear, was not the first survivor of Stalin’s regime that I’d met. I head heard her story from her son, and from her current husband. I had heard similar stories of men going out to work and never coming home. I knew one man who had been snatched off the street and sent to a labor camp where he was held for five years, never knowing whether his family was still alive.
I finally convinced the team that what I was telling them was true, and they verified it through the patient’s family. Her treatment was adjusted and within a few weeks the worst of her severe depression and anxiety was eased.
I think about her sometimes.
Lately, though, I think more about that medical team. If they are still alive now, what do they think of what is happening in the US today?
Do they realize now how easy it is for people to slowly lose their rights? Do they understand how an autocratic leader can convince people that in order to be safe they need to give up some freedoms?
I hope that as they watch the news unfolding in Portland, they recognize the incredible danger facing the US at this moment. I hope they speak out, loudly. I hope they share the story of that one old survivor and what happened to her family.